OLD ACQUAINTANCE : Renata Tebaldi: A Diva Ages Gracefully : A stubborn streak has carried the soprano of the 'steel dimple' into a retirement free of regrets

In her heyday during the 1950s and '60s, she was dubbed "La Superba" by her admirers. Today at 66, Renata Tebaldi might well be called "La Serena."

There must be some Italian alchemy at work here. The lady looks as if she were in her early 50s, at most. Her skin is almost as flawless as it was 38 years ago when she made her debut as Aida with the San Francisco Opera. Her eyes are the same Paul Newman blue, but her once-black hair has been auburn for some time.

She is always happy to see an American visitor since, as she puts it, "I know America is the country that loved me most." The interview goes back and forth from Italian to English.

Without prodding, she recites some reviews from the New York Times with uncanny accuracy: "She is your sweetheart, my sweetheart, everybody's sweetheart," and (for "La Fanciulla del West") ". . . New York had a new Golden Girl to fall in love with . . . what a pretty leg!"

Tebaldi was, by general agreement, the finest lirico spinto to come out of Italy since the war. Her voice was large, particularly in the middle, and it was the same voice throughout its range. She probably never had to shift a vocal gear in her life. It was a warm sound and multicolored. She also commanded pianissimo tones at the top that were rivalled only by Zinka Milanov.

After study with the verismo specialist Carmen Melis, Tebaldi made her debut in Rovigo in 1944 as Elena in "Mefistofele." Her rise to prominence was rapid. Toscanini auditioned her in 1948, and she was chosen as one of his soloists to open the rebuilt Scala.

In those days, recording companies had exclusive contracts with their stars and took a hand in helping to mold careers. For about 10 years, Angel's recordings with Callas and Di Stefano and London's with Tebaldi and Del Monaco influenced productions and casting in most international opera houses.

Early on, however, the soprano displayed a stubborn streak which she carried throughout the career. After her success in San Francisco, it took general manager Rudolf Bing five years before he could persuade her to sign with the Met on terms that she considered proper. He didn't refer to her "dimples of steel" for nothing.

In his book, "The Met," Martin Mayer summed up Tebaldi this way: "A lovely and beloved artist, (she) would maintain an image of not being a prima donna at all against a reality of absolutely always getting her own way."

Be that as it may, or perhaps because of it, Tebaldi has only the fondest memories of Bing. "He was the best general manager I ever worked with. He had the greatest singers in the world acting like soldiers. He believed in discipline. I was treated like all the others."

Yes, but some were treated more equally than others. In 1958, Tebaldi decided "Traviata" was no longer for her. She informed Bing she would substitute "Butterfly."

Tebaldi was not small. Shod for the stage, she was 5-feet-10 and hardly one's ideal Cio-Cio-San physically. Bing sent around an internal memo saying he had no choice but to acquiesce, but that ". . . it will probably mean the end of my beautiful 'Butterfly' production."

As it turned out, Bing was wrong. The "Butterfly" on Nov. 8, 1958 was one of the great performances of her career. Irving Kolodin in the Saturday Review reported, "The strong-voiced soprano gratified best hopes with a warmly colored, expertly shaded treatment of the vocal score, which attested not only to her capacity for artistic growth but . . . an increased effectiveness of her powerful vocal means."

The second instance of the soprano's equal treatment concerned her preoccupation with "Adriana Lecouvreur." Even Rosa Ponselle couldn't persuade management to put on this opera with its treacly sentiment and endless retreading of musical ideas. Tebaldi was adamant. Bing gave in but tried to get out of it, using the '61 strike as an excuse. He should have known better. Tebaldi did not return that season. She refused a future contract until Bing promised the vehicle for '62-'63.

Artistic matters aside, the main reason for such pampering was practical. According to the late Francis Robinson, assistant manager in charge of ticket sales, "Renata Tebaldi was the greatest box-office draw since Flagstad."

In Italy, at the outset of her career, Tebaldi's repertory was wide-ranging. As her fame grew, she increasingly limited herself to Verdi (Violetta, Aida, Desdemona, the "Boccanegra" Amelia, the "Forza" Leonora and Alice Ford), Puccini (Mimi, Butterfly, Tosca, Manon Lescaut and Minnie) and the occasional verismo composer such as Giordano (Maddalena and Fedora) and Catalani (Wally).

She was sometimes accused of being bland as an actress. Her height and charismatic presence gave her authority, however, and she could stab a Scarpia and fight off courtroom guards in "Chenier" with gusto.

When she did get "Adriana" at the Met, the soprano endured the first real crisis of her career. She found herself in dangerous vocal trouble. She tended to sing flat and her top voice was in shreds, possibly the result of pushing her middle voice for an even larger sound. She confided once to a friend during this period that her teacher, Melis, gave her an inadequate technique.

In typical fashion, Tebaldi withdrew. She promptly began to restudy her vocal method. When she returned after a year, much of the old vocal bloom was gone, but she had rescued enough to extend her career another half dozen years.

"I gave my last concert in 1976," she says, seemingly without regret. "For 32 years, I had given everything I had. I wanted to stop. My last big debut was in Russia in 1973. After I retired I didn't have to worry about going out in bad weather. I could stay up late. I could even smoke a cigarette if I wanted to."

And what does she do these days?

The reply is disarmingly simple. "I am honored," she says.

"I recently returned from Paris where someone had bred a new flower and called it the Tebaldi Rose. I give master classes at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, for example. I have helped the Chicago Bel Canto Foundation. When certain individuals I like ask me, I coach.

"I am now working with another American girl. I don't want to mention her name. She just might be a true dramatic soprano. However, she's already 33 and she will have to move soon or it will be too late."

It is pointed out that at 33, Tebaldi had already sung at Scala, the other major houses of Italy, Covent Garden, Paris, San Francisco, Chicago and the Met. She shrugs.

"I suppose in my day, we were more ambitious and worked harder. I don't understand the schools and teachers today. We worked six hours a day. Now I understand students get two half-hour sessions a week. Not enough. Voices don't have the time to mature.

"The only soprano you recognize instantly when you hear a recording or turn on the radio is Montserrat Caballe." Tebaldi claims that she had only the best relations with her tenors. She particularly admired Jussi Bjorling, Franco Corelli and Mario del Monaco.

She also says that she had little trouble with conductors. She adored Arturo Toscanini and Dimitri Mitropoulos. "It's not true that Toscanini was so strict. He always allowed you liberty within the phrase. As for Mitropoulos, I don't understand those people who said he was hard on singers. He was always most accommodating with me. I will never forget our Toscas together."

Her favorite of all was Victor de Sabata. "You just looked in his eyes and you knew what he wanted you to do."

The one conductor who decidedly did not please her was Herbert von Karajan. During the recording of "Aida," he insisted on a dozen takes of the second act concertato where the soprano must soar over other soloists, orchestra and chorus.

As the smile and famous dimples disappear, she says, "Naturally he chose the last take. By that time, my voice was gone and I couldn't be heard. I was forced to cancel many performances in Vienna just to get over the whole thing and recover."

The soprano has no regrets now, but she admits she would like to have sung three operas that she never did, "Francesca da Rimini," "Werther" and "Norma."

"Once I decided I would learn 'Werther' in French," Tebaldi said. The part does not lie high and can be sung by a high mezzo or a soprano. "I called Bing to ask for it. 'Renata,' he said, 'you're a day late. I just promised it to Regine Crespin.'

"Tullio Serafin begged to teach me Norma. He asked me to cancel everything and give him six months and he would guarantee a success. I kept thinking of the 'Norma' tradition and was worried that I was not right, so I never did it. Now when I think of all the people who have been singing it recently. . . ."

She laughs. "Oh yes, once I was asked to do 'The Merry Widow' on Broadway. That might have been fun."

There is one last, inevitable subject to discuss: her much publicized rivalry and feud with Maria Callas. The diva sighs resignedly as it is broached.

She is reminded of the PBS documentary about Callas, in which she stated that the tempest was largely a creation of the media. "That wasn't really true," she now states. "Callas hated me, and I don't know why. Some people have suggested it was because I had an easy time of it coming up and she had to struggle.

"Our repertories were almost completely different, except on recordings. When she came into mine with Maddalena, Fedora and Butterfly, she had no success." Indeed, the "Chenier" opening was the first occasion at La Scala when Callas was booed.

"Everything I did, I did myself," Tebaldi continues. "She had her rich husband (Italian industrialist Giovanni Battista Meneghini) to help her. He cultivated the owner of Corriere della Sera (possibly the most influential newspaper in Italy) on her behalf. The designer Bichi, who had a society background, took her under her wing and pushed her into the chic salons."

During the brouhaha, Tebaldi remained silent at first. The famous Time cover story on Callas became the last straw. The Italian soprano didn't mind too much that Callas likened her own voice to champagne as opposed to her rival's Coca-Cola. But when Callas stated, "She has no spine," Tebaldi exploded.

Against the advice of friends, she sent a letter to the editor that became a classic rejoinder:

"She says I have no spine. That may be, but I have one thing she will never have, a heart."

Tebaldi begins to show off the mementoes around her sumptuous apartment. There are photographs and miniature paintings of herself, letters and autographs of Verdi, Puccini and Giordano. On the center of her piano, two signed photos take pride of place. One is of the current Pope and the other is of herself and Franco Corelli with the President and Jacqueline Kennedy.

As for the future, Tebaldi is almost alone now. She has her maid of 32 years, Tina Vigano, who is the keeper of the flame. You want to get to Renata, you go through Tina. Before her there was Signora Tebaldi.

"My mother was my best friend and confidante. She was my Cenerentola (Cinderella). Here, there, everywhere. She did everything for me."

Tebaldi will not discuss her private life. Over the years there have been rumors of romantic involvements with a number of men--a bass, a conductor, even a tenor.

Does she regret not having married and having a family?

She shakes her head firmly and replies with just a touch of Norma Desmond: "I get letters constantly from all over the world, telephone calls from America, Brazil, Australia, all over, especially on my birthday.

"A family? I have a huge international family. That's all I need."

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